Originally published at suite101.com on 19/09/08, now over at Xomba.

The Leighton Library in Dunblane was built between 1684 and 1688 to house a bequest of 1400 books by the former Bishop of Dunblane (1661-1670) and Glasgow (1670-1674) Robert Leighton.

Leighton was born in 1611 and educated at Edinburgh University, serving as Principal of the same from 1653, before rising through the clergy to become Bishop of Dunblane in the aftermath of the Restoration. After a career spent steeped in the controversy and dangers of trying to reconcile the various religious factions of the time, he retired to live in Sussex with his step-sister for the last decade of this life.

After his death in 1684 his will was found to proclaim that, “Only my Books I leave and bequeath to the Cathedral of Dunblane in Scotland, to remaine there for the use of the clergie of that Diocess.” Along with this Leighton also made a bequest of £100 to build a suitable building to house his collection of books and manuscripts.

Historical Significance of the Library and its Collection

Despite being built largely from stone reclaimed from the ruins of the Bishops Palace the cost of erection exceeded Leighton’s original bequest with the additional £62-2s-6d being donated by friends and relatives of the late bishop. At a time when most of the ordinary clergy would have owned half a dozen books each, the gift of this collection to the diocese would have been a considerable resource.

The collection expanded over time to encompass 4500 books in 88 languages, most of which were published between 1504 and 1840. Included in the collection are many rare first editions (such as Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake) and historical curiosities from the poems of George Buchanan to an account of life at Balmoral donated and signed by Queen Victoria.

Between 1734 and around 1840 the library was used as a subscription lending library making it the oldest purpose built private library in Scotland. The library fell into disuse after 1840 but was restored to its former glory by public subscription during the late 1980s and since then the library’s fascinating collection of books in a myriad of languages has once again been open to the public.

Dunblane itself has been an important site since around 600 AD, often being closely entwined with events of both historic and religious importance. Leighton himself played a central role in Charles II’s attempts to reinstate episcopacy, becoming Bishop of Glasgow at his request in 1670. In a period better known for the passions and violence of both the Covenanters and the Jacobite uprisings that would follow, Leighton had a reputation as a voice of reason and moderation.

Visiting and Reading the Books

The collection has been recognised by the British Library as being of international academic importance. Normally a couple of the larger books are available to browse, but for a closer look the books are catalogued as part of Stirling University’s library catalogue and can be accessed by arrangement with the university for academic study.

The library has remained under the management of a series of trustees from 1691 to the present day. Between May and September the library is open weekdays between 11am and 1pm, information about arranging group visits outside those hours is available at the library’s website. The library is free to the public and staffed by knowledgeable volunteers, but donations are always welcome